Imagine the situation: a long-planned excursion, an unbeatable opportunity to “recharge your batteries” in a dreamlike setting… But when you arrive at your destination… surprise! The parking lot is full, and you have nowhere to park your vehicle. The result? In the best case scenario, wasting valuable time behind the wheel while waiting for a spot to become available. In the worst case, having to turn back or risk a fine for improper parking.
Although this situation may seem exceptional, it is quite common in some natural areas. In fact, the problem has worsened in many areas during the past summer, possibly due to the desire for outdoor activities after the confinement caused by the coronavirus crisis. And for this reason, parking capacity controls can also be a useful tool for outdoor spaces.
Collecting data in natural areas
The term “big data” is more closely related to the field of smart cities or Industry 4.0. However, exploiting the data provided by visitors to a natural area is essential for its management. Thus, when this information is not available, administrators of these sites may face four major types of problems (1 and 2):
- Management based on personal intuition that may be influenced by external pressures.
- Lack of a systematic basis for resource allocation.
- Absence of a benchmark that allows for monitoring the effectiveness of management and revising planning.
- Lack of knowledge about visitors’ preferences, values, and behavior.
Therefore, this data can be used for planning, resource allocation, reporting, or marketing actions.
What activities, environments, or points can be monitored? The identification will depend on the use intended for the data. However, in the following sections, we offer some possibilities.
Parking capacity control, a simple way to improve visitors’ experience
As we mentioned in the introduction, arriving at a natural area and finding no available parking spaces creates a negative impression on hikers.
Some national parks with a high density of visitors have opted for advanced solutions. A clear example is the Milford Sound area in New Zealand. In order to manage the one million annual visitors it receives, it implemented a parking monitoring system typical of a smart city. However, these types of investments are not always justifiable. After all, many natural areas are characterized by clear seasonality in their use and enjoyment, making these projects unfeasible.
For such cases, vehicle counting to calculate parking capacity can be an alternative. The use of inductive loops or piezoelectric sensors at entrances is a solution that has been used for some time to collect data for statistical purposes. However, this information is usually not displayed in real time to users of these outdoor spaces.
Therefore, in order to respond to the need to provide useful information to the public and data that contribute to improving the management of natural sites, Arantec is collaborating with the Conselh Generau d’Aran on a pilot parking capacity project.
The initiative is based on the installation of traffic counters at entrances to areas with high tourist influx. This way, it is shown in real time whether the parking lot is full or not. At the same time, the solution collects data on peak traffic hours and days. For example, this information allows the administration to manage its resources more efficiently.
People counting, establishing measures to avoid exceeding the carrying capacity of a natural area
Overcrowding is a problem experienced by many natural areas. It is a situation that has various impacts on the natural environment. The indirect influence of visitors, for example, can affect the biology of certain species. Similarly, disrespectful behavior can result in an increase in improperly disposed waste. A heavily visited public space can also create a negative perception associated with a loss of environmental quality.
In some cases, these overcrowdings necessitate limiting daily visits or access. One of the recent sites that has chosen this option is the Alt Pirineu Natural Park, overwhelmed by the number of visitors it received during the last summer and which has produced such striking images as those shown in the following video published by the newspaper La Vanguardia.
People counting can be a measure to control visitor flow. Its main objective is to prevent exceeding the carrying capacity or load of the area. This concept, crucial in the management of any natural space, refers to the maximum number of people an area can accommodate without causing irreversible impact (3). Thus, implementing sensor systems similar to those described for parking capacity control enables real-time visualization of the number of people passing through a specific point. Collecting this data would also allow the creation of predictive models, an experience that has already been tested in several natural areas in Australia (1).
Monitoring forest fires and air quality, two interrelated variables
The implementation of a sensor network allows for an early warning system against events such as wildfires. As we described in the article on the Internet of Things (IoT) and forest fires, sensor technology enables monitoring factors that increase the risk of fire (humidity, temperature, wind, etc.).
But the usefulness of these technologies doesn’t end there. Measuring air quality is also a factor to consider. Although air pollution is a problem associated with urban areas, natural spaces are not exempt from this circumstance. A clear example is the closure of Yosemite National Park (USA) due to poor air quality caused by the wildfires that ravaged California in September 2020.
Similarly, pollutants such as tropospheric ozone, or “bad” ozone, mentioned in our article on the main air pollutants, can have a special impact on some outdoor locations. After all, it is a secondary pollutant that is generated from compounds transported through the atmosphere, carried from emission sources to rural areas.
Monitoring weather conditions, an option to enhance visitor safety
Meteorology is a factor whose variability becomes particularly important when seeking to enjoy an excursion. Outdoor areas can experience sudden weather changes that can endanger people’s lives.
In this regard, the deployment of strategically placed automatic weather stations allows for obtaining hyperlocal data on weather conditions. This information, combined with satellite or radar data, can be used to develop prediction models based on nowcasting technologies. This option enables obtaining short-term forecasts (up to 6 hours) for a local scale. Leveraging this data can be especially useful in areas prone to flash floods, for example.
As demonstrated throughout this article, it is evident that technology also has a place in the natural environment.
Relying on sensor networks can contribute to modernizing the management capacity of a public use space. It also helps improve the users’ experience. And when the promotion of sustainable tourism is configured as a tool to address socioeconomic crises, providing a quality service must be one of the primary premises.
- (1) Wardell, M. J. & Moore, S. A. & Cooperative Research Centre for Sustainable Tourism (2005). Collection, storage and application of visitor use data in protected areas: guiding principles and case studies. Gold Coast, Qld : CRC for Sustainable Tourism. Disponible en https://core.ac.uk/reader/11232507
- (2) Rogowski M. (2020). Monitoring System of tourist traffic (MSTT) for tourists monitoring in mid-mountain national park, SW Poland. Journal of Mountain Science 17(8). doi: 10.1007/s11629-019-5965-y
- (3) López, S. J.; Martín, S.; López, M.; Aguilar, F. (2015) Uso público en espacios naturales. Madrid: Editorial Síntesis (2015). ISBN 978-84-907716-9-3